Whiny Sceptics

July 28, 2008 at 6:45 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Homeopathy, Nutritionism, Woo) (, )

I’ve been blogging about bullshitters and mindfuckers since, ooh, last September. Recently, I claimed that woos are angry and I asked why. For balance, perhaps I should ask why sceptics are so whiny?

Sceptics and woos sometimes appear to be almost like adults and children. The kids are asking why they can’t use the Akashic field in order to cure cancer and stamping their feet in a temper tantrum on being told that the reason they can’t is because there is no such thing as an Akashic field (and would they mind awfully if we didn’t wait for their imaginary friend before we set off on holiday, because we’ve only got an hour before our flight and we have to set off to the airport now). This analogy probably won’t stand much stretching, but for the sceptics there does seem to be a general whining about how the public need to be protected from woo. Well, the woo-buying public aren’t children – and we are not their mothers. Obviously, some of us think it important to provide a counter to the bullshit that is produced by woos on a daily basis and perpetuated by lifestyle mags and the mainstream media but do we have to sound so paternalistic?

Obviously, I’m as guilty as the next man (or woman) and I reckon I’ve done my fair share of whinging – to the BBC over JABS, and to NASH over the claims made by one of the homeopaths registered with them. Not to mention on my blog, where I’ve found time to criticise anti-vaccinationists, nutritionists, and homeopaths among others. I reckon I could debunk the sillier claims of nutritionists and homeopaths without whinging about people being ripped off or endangered. With the exception of those who give their children ‘Alternative’ medicine instead of the real thing, most of the victims of woo are surely people who are old enough and intelligent enough to make their own decisions on these things?

9 Comments

  1. dvnutrix said,

    It’s rarely the individual or a single event – it’s the landscape that it establishes in which other, more bothersome events can occur.

    For instance, if an adult wants to spend money on worthless tests or supplements that are recommended by Patrick Holford, Gillian McKeith, Jonny Bowden et al. – that is their choice as autonomous adults. However, if we are then asked to accept that there are curricula or exams that accept distorted biology or physiology then we have a problem: eg, that chlorophyll oxygenates blood; or that food intolerance is related to IgG antibody levels etc.

    In addition to that, if these ideas get such a stronghold that the govt. is considering spending taxpayer money on them – Brain Gym is an example that happened – Food for the Brain is trying to get funding for introducing their programme into more schools. Basic healthy eating message – no problem. Beyond that, the food intolerance tests, the use of homocysteine tests for children plus hair analysis – no, no and no.

    If people don’t highlight the absurdities of the fish oil non-trials that you and others have covered, how to you intervene to stop the govt. or similar spending substantial sums of money on scant evidence.

    My tuppence.

  2. Charlotte said,

    My main problem is with the support of woo by people who ought to know better. If people want to believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden that’s up to them, but we shouldn’t have the BBC publicising fairy experts, or degrees in fairy studies – supported by public funding.

    Anti-vax is a whole different kettle of fish of course due to herd immunity (disclosure: I have a crappy immune system and would prefer not to get measles) and the way that parents impose their beliefs on their kids. This makes it a public health issue, not a private choice matter.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for your contribution dvnutrix.

    I think you are right that these things need to be highlighted. I’m just not sure that bloggers like me are always as constructive as we could be. Some blogs have been able to convey the facts surrounding a particular brand of woo without seeming paternalistic or being counterproductive – because they have been written in such a way that readers are not patronised and woos are not antagonised. Holford Watch and Bad Science (among others) deserve a mention here. I have no intention of stopping blogging about woos, I would just like my blog to be a little more constructive, and perhaps less patronising and less antagonistic than it has been on occasion. I think one reason comments are important for bloggers is that they allow for feedback and bloggers like me can consider how best to incorporate suggested improvements. I could probably make the case that this has parallels in one of Robert Park’s Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science (covered here by Dr* T – Seven Signs) – “6: The discoverer has worked in isolation”. If you don’t have anyone to discuss things with (whether we are talking academic institutions or the pages of a blog), there must be a danger that you will go wrong and have no-one to put you right – meaning your wrong idea becomes further entrenched and ultimately becomes dogma. I’d rather have a mate tell me I was wrong than let me go on being wrong – which is why I’m not a nutritionist or a homeopath. And no longer have a Jimmy Carr/Hitler-style side-parting.

    I think the issues of taxpayers’ money being spent on woo and the legitimising of bullshit by government or by respected bodies such as the BBC (as Charlotte mentioned) are important ones. Apathy Sketchpad has written about taxpayer-funded schools teaching creationism, David Colquhoun of Improbable Science has written about nonsensical ‘science’ degrees and what is wrong with teaching homeopathy and other nonsense in our universities, and lots of people on Bad Science Blogs have written about NHS-funded homeopathy. On Bad Science, a huge number of comments were generated by Ben Goldacre blogging about Brain Gym.

    Charlotte – thanks for your comment.

    I think you make a good point about the publically-funded BBC publicising counterknowledge. I also think you are right to raise the issue of herd immunity and the importance of getting accurate information about vaccinations out there (preferably, the media wouldn’t spread misinformation in the first place but I think that’s maybe wishful thinking on my part). I think perhaps there is a line where private daftness becomes a public danger and Gus’s medical advice to the parent of a young child on the JABS forum is a good example of this (it is only one person advising another, but the consequences of such dangerously wrong advice could be severe) – here. In fact, MMR provides several examples that could illustrate pertinent points. The publically-funded BBC linking to and quoting JABS (our license fees helping to direct traffic to one of the worst sites on the web is not something I’m pleased about), the privately held beliefs of a bloke on the internet who has read whale.to being made public and potentially endangering the health of a young child and the media perpetuating a hoax that led to a decrease in MMR vaccination, an increase in measles and quite possibly the 2007 death of a boy from measles (the first death from this disease in the UK in 14 years).

  4. dvnutrix said,

    Shermer has an interesting piece that relates to communication issues.
    How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results.

    Nothing new but easy to read.

    The reason for this cognitive disconnect is that we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.

    Part of this is my way of saying that blogs that take a personal viewpoint (like yours) as well as discussing the science can be far more readable and effective than posts with extensive notes and references to primary sources (Ben Goldacre manages to blend the 2, of course).

  5. Homeopathy Man said,

    There is still a lot to be learned from homeopathy. Many conventional medical experts do not back alternative medicines for whatever reason. That’s why we as consumers have to do our own homework in finding effective treatments for medical conditions, but overall homeopathy is on the rise and should be around for a long time to come.

  6. Homeopathic remedies for said,

    Don’t believe everything the doctors say. Absolutely not! How many people have died as a result of homeopathy, compared to those who have died as a result of the wrong prescription? Hmmm….

  7. jdc325 said,

    There is still a lot to be learned from homeopathy. Many conventional medical experts do not back alternative medicines for whatever reason. That’s why we as consumers have to do our own homework in finding effective treatments for medical conditions, but overall homeopathy is on the rise and should be around for a long time to come.
    I don’t think there is a lot to be learned from homeopathy – what does it actually teach us that is true or useful? The vital force? Untrue. Law of similars? Untrue. Higher potency with increasingly diluted substances? Untrue. Medicine that contains no active ingredient can work? Untrue. Most conventional medical experts do not back alternative medicines for the simple reason that alternative treatments are defined as those which cannot be tested, have failed tests, or practitioners refuse to test. If they were shown to work then they wouldn’t be alternative – they would simply be medicine. I’m not sure how wise it is to advise ‘consumers’ (not ‘patients’, I note but ‘consumers’) to do their own homework – how many ‘consumers’ have the knowledge or the tools to diagnose themselves or research treatments? I’m not being rude about the average person’s intellect (apart from anything else, I’m in no position to do so), but there are reasons doctors go to medical school for five or six years. Overall homeopathy is on the rise? The Quackometer blog has reported on a survey by Pulse. It doesn’t look as if homeopathy is on the rise to me.

    Don’t believe everything the doctors say. Absolutely not! How many people have died as a result of homeopathy, compared to those who have died as a result of the wrong prescription? Hmmm….
    There is a rather obvious reason why more people have died from adverse reactions to drugs than to homeopathic products. Conventional medicines have a physiological effect. Homeopathy does not. Conventional medicines can cure a disease or relieve the symptoms of a disease. Homeopathy can’t. The reason homeopathic products have no side-effects is because they have no effects. The only effect you will get from a homeopathic remedy will be placebo and the only side-effect will be nocebo. The real danger with homeopathic products is that some people are under the mistaken impression not only that homeopathy may work, but that it is appropriate to use homeopathic products to treat or prevent serious diseases such as Meningitis (which is a medical emergency and should only be treated by an actual medical professional, not an amateur dabbling in magic water or sugar pills) or Malaria. Incidentally, the impression that homeopaths like to give of being ‘holistic’ and advising the patient on different aspects of lifestyle and disease prevention seems to be just that – an impression. Here, there is some interesting discussion of the Newsnight/SAS sting on homeopaths offering malaria prophylaxis. Note this from the comments thread: “for me the failure of homeopaths here to give “holistic” advice about bite prevention was by far the funniest thing about the whole sting, and it demonstrated how much “holistic” is product-branding rather than anything more meaningful”.

    I will leave your comments up, but I will be removing the commercial links as I do not allow spam on this blog.

    EDIT: Actually, thanks for the excuse to link to this again: The End of Homeopathy.

  8. Claire said,

    “Obviously, I’m as guilty as the next man (or woman) and I reckon I’ve done my fair share of whinging – to the BBC over JABS, and to NASH over the claims made by one of the homeopaths registered with them.”

    I don’t think you need to feel guilty at all about drawing the attention of these bodies to the flimsiness/lack of evidence underlying such claims. If more of us were more active in this regard, it might make a bigger impact.

    On the general topic, I agree with DVN’s well-made ‘landscape’ argument. Autonomous adults are of course entitled to spend money on whatever alternative modality they choose, but it doesn’t stop there. Purveyors of CAM gain traction in the media and those of us dealing with chronic conditions or – especially – caring for children with same (allergy in my case) can be inundated with suggestions about homeopathy etc, particularly difficult when coming from well-meaning family or friends, who are a bit miffed when their suggestions are not greeted with enthusiasm. So, from my perspective, the appearance of blogs and books which examine critically the health claims of CAM is definitely A Good Thing.

    Though I will say I’m not so much bothered by whininess as, sometimes, by the whiff of condescension (or paternalism) that occasionally accompanies such critical approaches. I can understand that condescension often seems well deserved and well-nigh irresistible but I think it risks playing into the hands of those who would have us believe that science and scientific medicine are the preserves of uncaring social elites.

  9. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for your comments Claire.

    Re: “Purveyors of CAM gain traction in the media and those of us dealing with chronic conditions or – especially – caring for children with same (allergy in my case) can be inundated with suggestions about homeopathy etc, particularly difficult when coming from well-meaning family or friends, who are a bit miffed when their suggestions are not greeted with enthusiasm”; I think this is something that has influenced the debunkers of alternative therapies. John Diamond’s Snake Oil is often cited as a good example of the well-meaning junk that people pass on (e.g., ‘my gran swears by squid cartilage’) and while I can’t remember much of the book itself (it’s some years since I read it), the foreword by Richard Dawkins is fairly fresh in my mind as it appears in the Devil’s Chaplain collection of essays. I actually borrowed from Diamond (via Dawkins) in order to describe alternative medicine as those therapies that fail tests, cannot be tested, or that practitioners refuse to test in my response to the Homeopathy Salesman who decided to spam this post with links to his shop.

    Re: “I can understand that condescension often seems well deserved and well-nigh irresistible but I think it risks playing into the hands of those who would have us believe that science and scientific medicine are the preserves of uncaring social elites.”; I think this is a good point well made. The fallacy that Alties are kind and nice and scientists are cold and unfeeling is an incredibly popular one. Not even the stream of abuse emanating from the CAM world has been able to shift this particular canard from popular consciousness. Perhaps if more war criminals were found to be practising as homeopaths the message would get through that ‘alternative healthcare’ does not automatically equal nice bedside manner. Condescension from debunkers of Altie claims will do nothing to help change this perception.

    I’m starting to get just slightly embarrassed by the fact that the comments on this blog are invariably more insightful than the piece I’ve written. Mainly, though, I’m pleased. It gives me something interesting to read when I should be working. God I love procrastination.

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